San Francisco Police Auditors Blame Policy Flaws in Mario Woods Shooting

Civilian watchdog agency finds officers used  “unnecessary force” in the videotaped confrontation, but does not recommend discipline

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A San Francisco Department of Police Accountability review concluded that officers used “unnecessary force” in the 2015  shooting death of Mario Woods but stopped short of seeking discipline against them.   

In a 3,000-page report released late Thursday, the civilian watchdog agency assigned most of the blame for the fatal confrontation – which was caught on video -- to “policy failures” at the time five officers opened fire on Woods, who was armed with a knife.

In explaining the rationale for not seeking discipline, the agency emphasized the department’s policy at the time lacked language to require that officers keep a safe distance during confrontations with suspects with weapons other than firearms. That language was later added.

“When considering the entire chain of events that lead to the officers’ use of lethal force, the DPA concludes that the excessive force allegation is the result of a policy failure,” the report concluded. 

Video of the shooting shows officers positioned in a semi-circle around Woods as he’s pinned against a garage door. Five officers then open fire when Woods appears to start walking towards one of the officers.

Although the SFPD found officers acted within the department’s policy, and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office declined to charge any of the officers, many people - including then District Attorney George Gascon - called the shooting unnecessary and avoidable. 

Many questioned why officers did not create more distance between themselves and Woods, making it less likely officers would need to use deadly force. 

“We can’t bring Mario Woods back, but we can learn from these incidents,” said Paul Henderson, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Department of Police Accountability.

Henderson credited the San Francisco Police Department for a series of reforms in the wake of the Woods shooting, including changes in 2016 that now require officers to employ specific tactics to defuse situations and create safe distance when dealing with people holding knives and other weapons that are not firearms.

But Henderson said it’s clear more changes are needed, including mandating comprehensive reviews of all serious police incidents and not allowing officers to review their own body-worn camera footage before being interviewed after a police shooting. 

“So that involved officers are giving statements without tainting their observations,” Henderson said.

The DPA’s report includes 17 specific recommendations in response to Woods’ shooting. San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott issues a statement saying he agreed with most of the recommendations, and noted that many had already been implemented in recent years.

“Since this matter occurred in 2015, the San Francisco Police Department has undertaken a series of reform efforts,” Scott wrote. “As a result of these reforms, we are pleased to note that the Police Department has proactively adopted the majority of the recommendations set forth in this report.”

However, Scott also disagreed with several of the report’s recommendations, including one that would mandate officers involved in - or who witness - a deadly force incident provide an interview prior to the end of their shift. He also disagreed with the recommendation that officers be interviewed before they’re allowed to view body-worn camera footage from the incident. 

The San Francisco Police Department did not respond to an interview request from NBC Bay Area. 

In a statement, San Francisco police union president Tony Montoya reiterated the police department determined the shooting was justified, and highlighted recent policy changes.

“Law enforcement professionals investigated this case and determined that our officers acted within the law and Department policy,” Montoya said.

“We trust their professional expertise over that of political appointees. Since 2016, the SFPOA and the Department have worked to overhaul our use of force policies, including a focus on de-escalation, which has resulted in a 51% decrease in uses of force since that time. We’re proud of that work and are committed to continuing on the path toward improving police and community outcomes.”

San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki said the police union has fought vigorously against some of the proposed reforms, but said he thinks they’ll be adopted in the near future nonetheless. 

“I think that these reforms are really no brainers, frankly,” Hamasaki said, adding he hopes they will be implemented to avoid another fatal shooting like what the video showed in the Woods case. 

 “I think everyone watching it from the outside thought this young man didn’t have to die.”

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